I spoke on the phone recently with one of the world's most respected meat authorities. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's encyclopedic River Cottage Meat Book, with its recipes for jugged hare and devilled kidneys, is a go-to reference for flesh and umbles. The British chef is also a fish expert: His River Cottage Fish Book may be the most indispensable seafood cookbook in print.
But like a rapidly growing number of food-world insiders, Fearnley-Whittingstall is most evangelical these days about the delicious and serially overlooked possibilities of the vegetable aisle.
"We all know in our heart of hearts that we should eat more veg," he told me. "I don't know anyone who's saying, 'God, I really must lay off the veg, I'm overdoing it.' "
The way to do that is to make them taste incredible. In his latest cookbook, River Cottage Veg, Fearnley-Whittingstall does a flaky tarte tatin made with baby beets and brown sugar baked nearly to the consistency of toffee. He does sublimely flavourful crowd-pleasers like Spanish patatas bravas, and bruschetta-like "toasties" topped with decidedly non-typical toppings, like honeyed squash, crumbled cheese and walnuts.
Rather than defaulting, as so many home cooks do, to "boil," or "salad," his trick is to treat vegetables in much the same manner as animal protein.
"We need to be roasting them, grilling them, barbecuing them, maybe shaving them, slicing them very fine, playing with them, boldly using herbs and spices to compliment their flavours," Fearnley-Whittingstall told me.
To that end, I've hit up six of the best North American chefs with a simple brief: Give us your greatest vegetable techniques – the ones that will not only wow home cooks, but also help us see the plant world's possibilities in an irresistibly tasty new light.
Exploit their sweet side
Charles-Antoine Crête, the chef de cuisine at Montreal's celebrated Toqué restaurant, sees endless possibility where most other cooks see produce. With tomatoes alone, the chef makes jelly, jam, caramel, sugar, waffles, chips, oil, sorbet, vinaigrette, juice, sauce, paste and candy. (He also does a killer inside-out BLT.)
But his way with fresh summer corn got me the most excited – it's perhaps the most head-slapping simple and spectacular corn dish I've had. Crête cuts the kernels from a dozen fresh cobs, then purées them before straining out the pulp. He then heats the juice in a double-boiler, seasoning with salt and stirring constantly until the corn's natural starches thicken into a custard-like consistency.
He then strains it, chills it, then runs it through an ice-cream maker for one of the creamiest and most intensely summery sorbets imaginable.
Smoke 'em if you've got 'em
Amanda Cohen, the Toronto-raised chef behind Dirt Candy, in New York's East Village, is the toast of that city's culinary set lately, and not just its vegetarian chapter.
One of Cohen's signature moves is smoking vegetables. "It's fascinating because every vegetable tastes different when you smoke it," she said. "Peppers taste like paprika, obviously, but cauliflower kind of tastes like bacon."
The trick, she advised, is that a little smoke goes a long way, and most vegetables should be cooked afterward to mellow out the smoky taste.
This summer, Cohen plans to introduce a smoked broccoli "hot dog" to the her menu. She trims a stalk of broccoli to roughly the shape of a wiener, with a bit of floret left at the top, and then smokes it over hickory for about a minute, grills the broccoli, so that it develops grill marks and bathes it in melted butter.
You can dress it as you'd dress a regular hot dog, or top it, as Cohen does, with broccoli kraut, a puree of broccoli slow-cooked with garlic and butter, a squirt of mustard-based barbecue sauce and chips made from broccoli rabe.
Jonathan Gushue, the chef at Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont., likes to intensify the flavours of vegetables when they're in season by pan-roasting – a dead-easy technique.
For a show-stopping carrot plate, Gushue slowly roasts a dozen baby heirloom carrots in a pan of foaming butter over medium heat, for about 12 minutes. While they're roasting, he simmers a cup of carrot juice to reduce by half, then mixes in about 1/3 cup of cold-pressed canola or another nutty oil, and seasons with salt, sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice.
He then makes a carrot purée, too: one carrot, cooked until tender in 200 mls of whipping cream, and then whizzed with a hand blender and chilled. Next, he shaves six carrots into ribbons with a vegetable peeler and crisps them in ice water. To assemble the dish, he spoons some purée onto the centre of a plate, and sets the roasted and shaved carrots on top, adding a drizzle of the reduction. It's then garnished with toasted sunflower seeds and chopped chervil.
Kevin Jeung, a 22-year-old rising-star of cooking from Toronto, has been working as a stagiaire at Mugaritz, a restaurant near San Sebastián, Spain, since last July. Though the spot holds two Michelin stars, the cooking there is often remarkably low-fi. The chefs at Mugaritz even make a point of burning their vegetables a lot of the time.
Jeung is often called upon to roast leeks, shallots, onion, Jerusalem artichokes and even fennel until they are crisped on their outsides to carbon black. Though the skins are a write-off, the process leaves the vegetables' insides sweet, smoky and meltingly tender – they're pure gorgeousness.
One of Jeung's favourite vegetables for burning is endive. He recommends charring endives whole on a hot barbecue. Once they're soft inside, peel off the endives' burnt outer layers, quarter lengthwise and dress with toasted pumpkin seeds, a splash of neutral-flavoured oil and salt. Serve hot.
Make a terrine
As chef de cuisine at Bishop's, Vancouver's pioneering farm-to-table restaurant, Andrea Carlson made a name for her refined vegetable cooking; this spring she's opened her own restaurant, called Burdock & Co. One of Carlson's greatest tricks is to treat veg like animal fat and odd bits – she builds them into spectacular terrines.
In summer she uses leeks. She suggests trimming about three pounds of leeks to leave the white and light green parts only, before blanching them in salted, boiling water until tender all the way through. Plunge in ice water, drain, then squeeze the leeks dry. Line a terrine with plastic wrap, followed by some of the leeks' tender leaves. Press the leeks very tightly into the mould, seasoning each layer with salt and fennel pollen. Cover, weight with a heavy object, and chill overnight with a pan underneath to catch any drippings.
The next day, pop the terrine from the mould, re-wrap it very tightly with plastic, then slice thickly to serve. (The terrine is superb with poached shrimp and a rich, buttery sauce.)
One of the most over-the-top delicious vegetable dishes I've eaten was at Eataly, Mario Batali's sprawling Italian food emporium in New York. The dish, served at the store's vegetables restaurant, called Le Verdure, was nothing more than bitter greens, grilled quickly with salt and very good oil, then dressed with balsamic and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. But it tasted sweet and bitter, smoky and salty, hot and cold, crisp and soft – it was a plate of intoxicatingly contrasting tastes.
Alex Pilas, Eataly's executive chef, says the dish, called Scarola Alla Griglia, is as easy as it sounds. The trick is picking small, tight, firm heads of bitter greens like radicchio, escarole or romaine lettuce instead of ones with floppy leaves. Cut the heads lengthwise in halves or quarters, depending on their size, being sure to leave the cores attached. Toss with good olive oil, salt and pepper, then grill over medium-high heat, turning the pieces so they develop dark grill marks on the outsides and steam a bit in their middles.
Dress with aged balsamic vinegar and shaved Parmesan cheese, as well as currants and pine nuts if desired.